This Is My Theme for English 1010

The question of content in first-year writing courses comes up a lot. Do these courses really have “no content”? One answer is that the content of the course is the writing that the students produce. Mostly, I like this answer, as it nicely pivots the attention of the question away from what gets read over to what gets written.

An image of a robot writing on paper with a fountain pen.Nevertheless, first-year writing courses are usually “about” something. In our program, where FYW is more explicitly a course in academic writing, we generally articulate a line of thinking—a combination of readings, central questions, and circulating vocabulary—that might be loosely considered a theme. Over a semester, we build a network of sequenced and related writing projects that extend and are supported by their relationship to other, similar projects. At times this can look like the formation of a mini-discipline, a course-specific, emergent context that indeed shares many characteristics of a more fully-fledged academic discipline (without the required membership of a specific discipline). These are not “writing in the disciplines” courses but, rather, courses that enact patterns of inquiry and engagement familiar to any discipline.

The theme, then, is crucial for mapping a territory for writing that is not merely an open space nor too defined and therefore restrictive. Oddly, many FYW courses still seem indifferent to what students write about. When a prominent rhet/comp journal prints an article that describes students writing about underage drinking or “a narrative about a high school football game,” I get uneasy. This reminds me of the countless papers I have read from transferring students requesting waivers of our course because they have “taken it before.” Too often, these papers are on topics with no other context than the long, uncritical list of sources at the back of a research paper on wage inequality, the persistence of racism, or the trouble with steroids in professional sports. These are all topics worthy of consideration, of course. But absent a critical context established by the course—at a minimum some organizing concepts and a specific enough site of inquiry to allow for new work to emerge—these are just rehearsals of various truisms or faithful adoptions of another scholar’s work.

Still, a themed course is not a course in that subject. One should not mistake a FYW course with a focus on posthuman subjectivity as a course in posthuman subjectivity. Clearly, composition is a lemonade-from-lemons field in that it has taken a terrible weakness—its reliance on instructors who may not have the scholarly expertise of their colleagues teaching upper-level courses within the disciplines—and turned it into a strength. FYW instructors build their courses around questions that need answers and topics that they may feel uncertain about. In this way, the courses are something more than faux-Socratic conversations leading back to the professor’s already worked out thesis. No, a good FYW course explores a space that becomes more “known” only once the students have staked out their own places within it.

I was reminded of this as I recently began work on a new FYW course. I gathered materials related to posthumanism because I intend to run a course with a central theme or question something like this: where is the boundary between our identity and our technology and why does this matter? It’s a familiar question, and, as I gathered materials, I began to see what a course in posthumanism might look like. I read Haraway and Hayles (and much more recent texts from Rosi Braidotti and Cary Wolfe). I decided that, in addition to recent films like Her and Robot and Frank, we’d have to see the original Robocop. Maybe Blade Runner too. I considered smaller clips, like Kevin Slavin’s unsettling TED talk, “How Algorithms Shape our World,” Susan Orleans’ recent New Yorker piece on the horse_ebooks Twitter phenomenon, and other cultural materials such as videogames, Daft Punk recordings, and autocorrect and other writing technologies. I thought, too, of theories of identity or subjectivity that would need attention. And then I realized that, while this is indeed what a course in posthumanism might “cover,” my course had room for only the smallest fraction of all that I had collected. I will choose a few of things to chart the territory for our conversations and writing. But I make a mistake if I let these signposts become the essence of the course. My students will undoubtedly know more (and differently) than me. The “theme” of the course is not a defined motif to be played again and again by novices struggling toward mastery. Our challenge is to improvise and create, to make something new out of what these first notes set up. Perhaps this emphasis on the new and on student production is ideological and, irony noted, humanist in orientation. But we’ll just have to see, won’t we?